Smoking Smarts

A smoker or grill and a handful of wet wood chips will infuse your favorite seafood with a wonderfully woodsy aroma and flavor.
By Julie Gunter

Whether you use a water smoker or a charcoal or gas grill, these tips will help you get satisfying results.

If using a charcoal grill: Pile coals on each side of grill, leaving center empty. Place a drip pan between coals. Prepare fire and let it burn 15 to 20 minutes. Place soaked wood chips on hot coals. Arrange fish on rack over drip pan to smoke for time indicated in recipe.

If using a gas grill: Light grill on one side. Wrap soaked wood chips in heavy duty foil, and punch several holes in foil. Place foil-wrapped chips directly on hot coals. Preheat grill 15 to 20 minutes. Arrange fish on rack opposite hot coals. Cover and smoke for time indicated in recipe.

Fully cooked smoked seafood should be firm to the touch, but not tough. Fillets should flake with a fork. And each bite should be superb.

Consider these other tips:

* Just about any seafood can be smoked, but this is one culinary case where fat works in your favor. Smoke penetrates high-fat fish more evenly and completely than lean fish, and fish types high in fat maintain better texture than lean ones, which tend to dry out. Prime picks include catfish, mackerel, mullet, salmon, shark, striped bass, swordfish, trout, sardines, tuna, and shellfish--including shrimp, lobster, crabs, clams, oysters, mussels, and scallops.

* Smoke the freshest fish available. Even the richest smoky essence can't save a poor piece of fish.

* Herbs, spices, salt, and sugar all contribute to the taste, but it's the wood that gives smoked seafood its signature flavor.

* Alder, apple, beech, birch, cherry, grapevines, hickory, maple, mesquite, and oak have their own characteristics. Hickory and mesquite impart the strongest smoked flavor; alder is the wood of choice when smoking salmon. Some devout fish smokers blend woods [Keep in mind that smoking can be a savory experiment] find what pleases your palate.

* Soaking wood chips in water ensures that they'll smoke slowly and impart their fragrance to fish before burning down to ashes. A short soak is usually sufficient, because most fish cook quickly. Soak chips 30 minutes, chunks 1 to 24 hours. If you're after an abundance of smoke flavor, be sure the wood is waterlogged. A lot of wood isn't necessary to gain good flavor. Two handfuls of chips or three or four chunks should be plenty, but experiment by using more wood for a stronger smoke flavor or less for milder results.

* Start your fire and let coals burn down until they're covered with gray ash. Cover coals with soaked chips, and set smoker vents to produce a smooth, even draft. Add herbs, citrus peel, or spices to the fire for more complex flavor.

* Get creative when it comes to filling a smoker's water pan. Why not add beer, wine, cola, fruit juice, or a marinade? The liquid bestows even more flavor to the fish as it steams and smokes.

* For best results, smoke only one type of fish at a time and use pieces that are the same size and weight.

* Butterfly small fish and spread them open for smoking. Cut larger fish into fillets or steaks. Smoke oysters on the half shell, and leave shrimp in the shell.

* Smoker racks should be lightly oiled to prevent fish from sticking. If only one rack is needed, use the upper level. Arrange fish on rack, skin side down, with enough room between pieces for air to circulate.

* Resist the temptation to lift the lid to check fish before the minimum recommended cooking time. If the lid is lifted, heat and moisture escape and 15 minutes should be added to the cook time.

Chips off the Old Block

You can find a variety of wood chips at your local supermarket or gourmet grocer, or order them from the following sources:

* Call 800/241-8981 or visit www.grillovers.com for Jack Daniel's Barrel Chips, hickory or mesquite chips or chunks, Southern cherry chunks, and maple chunks.

* Call 800/535-1711 or visit luhrjensen.com for hickory, apple, mesquite, alder, or cherry Chips 'n Chunks. Luhr Jensen Chips 'n Chunks are precision ground for an even, consistent burn. Soak these shavings in water 30 minutes before smoking.